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ReKnewing Hermeneutics, Part 1: A Review of Crucifixion of the Warrior God by Greg Boyd

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

— Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p.51

Advancing the Conversation Once Again

Most people are unlikely to have as much vitriolic contempt for the God of the Bible as Richard Dawkins. But even sincere people of faith, though they might live in the violence-saturated culture of America, sometimes recoil at the portraits of divine violence (hereafter “PDVs”) in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible). We tell our children censored versions of its stories so often that we end up believing our own versions. Then, when someone points us to the actual text, we’re shocked. “Was that in there the whole time?” we think. For at least some of us who are repulsed by these portrayals of God, it has caused significant doubt. We’ve asked, “Is God really as loving and beautiful as the portrayal of Jesus in the New Testament—or have we been duped?”

Defenders of the Bible’s PDVs will likely claim this is merely a modern dilemma caused by moral decay, secularism, or some other excuse. Those with vested interest in preserving the idea that God carries out violence, because it justifies their own use of violence, will claim that it’s only in recent times that anyone has questioned the interpretation of these passages. They’re incorrect. As far back as Christian thinkers have written about the Bible they have wrestled with the obvious tension between God, as revealed in the Hebrew Bible, and God, as revealed in Jesus. It may be that today the tension is again highlighted in a world that has extreme violence fatigue due to the ubiquity of violence in our media. But whatever the cause may be, today, millions of Christians are deeply troubled by PDVs, as the many solutions on offer in academia and the local Christian bookstore can attest.

Maybe there are Christians for which PDVs pose no challenge whatsoever. But that’s certainly not my story. When I began to follow Jesus as a teenager I exited a very violent lifestyle with a lot of trauma caused by the violence of which I’d been both victim and perpetrator. For me, following Jesus necessarily meant embracing Jesus’s peacemaking, enemy-loving nonviolence. There was no other “Way” of Jesus. The idea that God could be anything other than who God is revealed to be in Jesus was unthinkable to me—and still is. Back when George W. Bush was claiming Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, I vividly remember talking with a seminary-educated Christian pastor and hearing her say that the United States’ invasion of Iraq was justified because God commanded wars in the Old Testament. I’m just as offended by that reasoning today as I was then.

Problem is, the solutions to this tension on offer until now have been unfortunately insufficient. Each one I’ve read has left me wanting. Some offer insights meant to reduce the recoil, reduce the repulsiveness of the PDVs. Others have encouraged me to simply ignore them as the hyperbolic rhetoric of primitive peoples. Either the solutions proposed have not gone far enough, or they’ve gone too far. I’ve been in search of a proposal that preserves the Bible’s integrity as a God-breathed canon of scripture, while also providing a robust hermeneutic that can be applied to these texts in light of the world-changing Jesus event.

Enter: Crucifixion of the Warrior God (hereafter “CWG”) by Greg Boyd.

This work is ten years in the making and is borne from the same mind that has labored over questions of theodicy, providence, and politics with scholarly acumen and pastoral sensitivity for decades. While researching and writing this book, Boyd has written several other works in the intervening years. More than just a prolific author, Boyd is also a pastor with a heart for everyday people who have genuine questions. His books aren’t all massive, 1,300-page tomes like this one. Many of his books are tailored to a lay audience and are on subjects like imaginative prayer (Seeing is Believing) and judgmental religiosity (Repenting of Religion). But Boyd is also known for advocating controversial ideas that have made him a target of attacks from self-appointed gatekeepers of American Christianity.

In the late 90s, in addition to pastoring a rapidly-growing church, Boyd was also a professor at Bethel Seminary along with John Piper. Due to Boyd’s controversial views on divine providence, Piper attempted to have him ousted. Since then, it seems he’s been a lightning rod for criticism for one reason or another. It happened again in 2004 when Boyd began a sermon series at the church he serves, Woodland Hills, on the distinctiveness of the Kingdom of God from all other “kingdoms,” including the United States. That series resulted in over 1,000 people leaving the church and in the publication of Myth of a Christian Nation, a New York Times bestseller.

CWG is no exception to this pattern. In this two-volume tome, Boyd merges many of his break-through theological insights into a new break-through approach to the problem of PDVs. While this book is geared more toward serious theology nerds, later this year Boyd will release a condensed version geared more toward everyday people with questions. So, if you were discouraged when you read that the book is 1,300 pages long, I’d highly recommend grabbing Cross Vision next month.

Until then, I’d like to offer some thoughts on CWG for those considering whether to dive into the deep end. In this first post, I’ll summarize what Boyd calls the “Cruciform Hermeneutic” (Volume I). In the next post, I’ll summarize what Boyd calls the “Cruciform Thesis” (Volume II). Then in a final post, I’ll unpack some of Boyd’s ideas the way they landed with me, address some common objections, and offer some thoughts of my own.

Who Does Greg Boyd Think He Is?

Before I describe the layout of the physical book and summarize the Cruciform Hermeneutic, perhaps a word needs to be said in anticipation of those critics who will question Boyd’s qualification to advance this proposal at all. This is an odd phenomenon I find all too common today. What qualifies a theologian to write theological works? Well, in one sense anyone is entitled to wax theological and their proposal should be judged on its own merits. I have no doubt there are brilliant theologians among the lay members of congregations the world over. However, there is a particular gift given to the church of persons who are called and especially gifted to study, teach, and write theology. Boyd is such a gift. Yes, Boyd is a pastor; he’s also a legit scholar. Not only has he completed rigorous theological programs at both Yale and Princeton (with honors), he’s also taught theology at the seminary level for many years. He’s written or co-written over 20 books, and he’s contributed essays to another 16, at least. Boyd is a rare breed of theologian; both academically gifted yet grounded in local church ministry.

Furthermore, CWG is flanked by endorsements from some serious heavy-hitters. Scott McKnight, Terrence Frietheim, Walter Brueggemann, and Michael J. Gorman all lent their support to this project. Not to mention, Boyd draws on the work of several of the most influential and groundbreaking thinkers in modern theology: Moltmann, Urs von Balthasar, Torrance, and many more. CWG’s bibliography is 37 pages long! If you’re going to mount a counter-argument to this proposal, you’d better eat your Wheaties!

In reality, there are few people (if any) alive today more qualified than Boyd to write this book. He is a highly sought-after speaker on nonviolence, also regularly writing on the subject at his ministry’s website (ReKnew.org). He’s also one of the most vocal proponents of a Jesus-looking picture of God, with corresponding biblical interpretation. With all of his qualifications in mind, there is little doubt Boyd is eminently qualified to write this book. He might even be uniquely qualified.

Navigating the Physical Book

Now, before one can even begin processing the thoughts and concepts contained in CWG, he or she has to find their way around the physical book. The organization of this book has the potential to be a bit confusing at first. There are two main ideas in the book: The Cruciform Hermeneutic and The Cruciform Thesis. While one volume has been devoted to each, there is a quite a bit of overlap of ideas. And, already, one might ask, What’s the difference between the two anyway? Truth is, it wasn’t immediately or always clear to me since each idea seem to inform the other. But, at minimum, the Cruciform Hermeneutic is Boyd’s attempt to explain how he conceptualizes his method of biblical interpretation, before addressing the specific PDVs in question. Boyd wants readers to understand where he’s coming from before he begins explaining the conclusions at which he’s arrived regarding the interpretation of particular passages. The Cruciform Thesis is composed of four principles which inform Boyd’s theological interpretation of biblical passages.

It was helpful for me to think of the composition of the book in terms of its division of “parts.” There are seven parts to CWG, three in Volume I and four in Volume II.

  • Volume I: The Cruciform Hermeneutic is divided into the following three parts
    • Part 1: The Centrality of the Crucified Christ
    • Part 2: The Problem of Divine Violence
    • Part 3: The Cruciform Hermeneutic
  • Volume II: The Cruciform Thesis is made up of four parts that are each a principle
    • Part 4: The Principle of Cruciform Accommodation
    • Part 5: The Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal
    • Part 6: The Principle of Cosmic Conflict
    • Part 7: The Principle of Semiautonomous Power

Laying a Foundation

Before I can get into a summary of Boyd’s arguments in parts 1-3, I can’t neglect Boyd’s work of laying a foundation for the proposal he’ll advance. There is a metaphor he uses as an imaginative guide to the approach he’s taking (A). Then there is a foundational approach to Scripture that undergirds the entire project (B).

A. The Cruciform Magic Eye

Magic Eye

Boyd begins Volume I with an analogy that frames his aim well. If you’ve ever struggled to see the 3D image pop off the page of a “Magic Eye” poster (as I have!) you’ll understand why Boyd’s use of this metaphor makes so much sense. Boyd contends,

“The driving conviction of the Cruciform Hermeneutic is that since Calvary gives us a perspective of God’s character that is superior to what people in the OT had, we can also enjoy a superior perspective of what was actually going on when OT authors depicted God engaging in and commanding violence. If we remain committed to the conviction that all Scripture is inspired for the ultimate purpose of bearing witness to the revelation of God on the cross, and if we therefore humbly look for the crucified God in the depths of the OT’s violent depictions of God, my claim is that we do, in fact, find him. Like a beautiful three-dimensional object rising out of a two-dimensional mundane pattern in a ‘Magic Eye’ book, I believe the Cruciform Hermeneutic enables us to discern the beauty of the crucified God rising out of the portraits of God that on the surface appear profoundly ugly. The crucified Christ, in short, gives us the ‘Magic Eye’ to discern him in the depths of even the most horrifically violent portraits of God.” (xxxiv-xxxv)

Time and again as I read, this analogy helped me when the rich layers of Boyd’s method began to feel overwhelming. He’s suggesting that there is a surface view to Scripture that is immediately apparent. It’s two-dimensional. But, with patience and a little guidance, one can adjust their focus in such a way as to see a picture emerge from the surface as if it’s leaping off the page. That image is the Cross. I think if readers keep this analogy in mind, it will help prevent getting bogged down in the complex techniques Boyd is exploring. But there is still one more foundational element to cover before getting to a summary of the the Cruciform Hermeneutic.

B. Wrestling with Scripture

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One of Boyd’s core convictions is that “faith” is not mutually exclusive with “doubt” (cf. Benefit of the Doubt). He demonstrates this through his own scholarship, which in large part is driven by his own wrestling with Scripture. It’s what Boyd calls “Israelite” faith.

“[..]the essence of faith in Scripture is not about blind submission to authoritative traditions or the quest for psychological certainty. It is rather an ‘Israelite’ faith in which the depth of a person’s faith in God is sometimes reflected precisely in their willingness to authentically ‘wrestle’ with him.” (13)

It’s important to keep this in mind as one reads CWG. Otherwise, more conservative readers will be tempted to view Boyd’s exploration as disrespectful. It isn’t. As a member of the body of Christ, Boyd views himself as a covenant partner with God. As the Scriptures themselves attest, God doesn’t want a ‘Stepford wife’; God wants a fully and freely participating covenant partner. Therefore, Boyd writes with the boldness of a partner and the humility of a finite human being on a journey. In proposing this well-researched approach to a serious theological conundrum, he doesn’t claim to have all the answers. In fact, I found it particularly humble for Boyd to present CWG this way:

“[…]I will constantly place my own perspectives in dialogue with the views of others, past and present. Indeed, it is precisely for this reason I am now submitting my proposal to the larger body of Christ for consideration.” (17)

Boyd fully expects to receive push back, and he has. The question is: Will his interlocutors be as humble as he? If the early discussions I’ve witnessed online are any indicator, I’m not hopeful.

Part 1: The Centrality of the Crucified Christ

The rest of part one can be further divided into three parts. Chapters 2 and 3 demonstrate Boyd’s radically Jesus-centered hermeneutic. He argues that the New Testament authors present Christ as the supreme and definitive revelation of God. This will strike some readers as wholly unnoteworthy and others as completely insane. It’s quite remarkable to me how often I’ve witnessed both reactions. I’ve read people who basically yawn at this suggestion and others who completely freak out. But this suggestion really shouldn’t be shocking. A cursory introduction to the New Testament makes this point emphatically. There is no space here to support that claim. I think Boyd does a fantastic job supporting it in CWG. So, I’d suggest you read the book!

In this part, Boyd draws on some of the church’s most groundbreaking theologians like Martin Luther and Karl Barth. For example, Boyd quotes T. F. Torrance:

“In Christ, what God communicates to man is not something, but his very self. This is distinct from all other acts of God. This is God’s unique act, his reality-in-the-act … in Jesus Christ God acts in such a way that he is himself in his act, and what he acts he is, and what he is he acts… Jesus Christ as act of God in humanity is identical with God’s own person.” (39, emphasis added by Boyd)

However, Boyd’s approach is a bit more novel than the typical “Christ-centered” hermeneutic. Not only does Boyd argue (thoroughly!) that the New Testament authors describe Jesus as the pinnacle of divine revelation, he also argues (thoroughly!) that the Cross is the thematic center of the New Testament’s testimony about Jesus. He does this in chapters 4 and 5.
In this part, Boyd draws on the work of such luminaries as Richard Baukham and Jürgen Moltmann. For example, he quotes Moltmann:

“The death of Jesus on the cross is the centre of all Christian theology… All Christian statements about God, about creation, about sin and death have their focal point in the crucified Christ.” (159)

Unsurprisingly, some have already expressed objection to this radically cross-centered approach. They argue that Jesus’s entire life must be considered. This is a simple misunderstanding of what Boyd is saying. Boyd is certainly not saying the rest of Jesus’s life is unimportant; only the cross. Boyd is saying “we must understand the person and work of Jesus as a perfectly integrated union.” (161) With Torrance, Boyd is arguing that “in Christ, ‘Person, Word and Act coinhere indivisibly in one another.’ ” (162) “Incarnational union was also an atoning union, in and through which our lost and damned humanity is redeemed, healed and sanctified in Jesus Christ.” (163) Boyd summarizes this way:

“[…]everything about Jesus’s ministry leads up to, and culminates in, his sacrificial death, and all of it is about the Atonement. […]the crucifixion and the message of the kingdom ‘belong together’ and ‘explain one another. The kingdom comes through Jesus’s entire work.’ […] this work ‘finds its intended fulfillment in his shameful death.’ […]the cross is the quintessential expression of who Jesus was and of everything Jesus was about. The indivisible and perfectly integrated wholeness of the one in whom God became human is oriented, from start to finish, around the cross.” (164-5)

But someone will object saying, What about the Resurrection? Boyd isn’t discounting the Resurrection either. For Boyd, resurrection power is “cruciform,” as Michael J. Gorman has emphasized in his work.

“[…]it is only because of the resurrection that we can know that the self-sacrificial love that was supremely revealed on the cross reveals the true character of God. Only because the Son was delivered can we know that this self-sacrificial love reveals the character of the life God calls humans to live. And only because the Son was vindicated can we know that the sacrificial love that Jesus exemplified throughout his life, and especially in his death, is the way God saves us and overcomes evil and the way God calls his followers to life and to overcome evil.

The resurrection is thus not to be understood as manifesting a kind of triumphant domineering power that replaces the power of the humble, obedient, self-sacrificial love that Jesus displayed on the cross. […]we cannot think of the cross as an inglorious temporary interruption to the way God is otherwise sovereign. The cross is rather the quintessential manifestation of the glorious way God is always sovereign.” (168-9)

For Boyd, the cross is the center of gravity for all of Scripture because the cross is the climactic expression of God’s character and nature of love. This love is embodied in Jesus’s life from his Incarnation to his Ascension and sending of the Spirit. This crucio-centric focus is not exclusionary of the other aspects of Jesus’s life and ministry: it summarizes it all.

Still, some will have difficulty with this essential aspect of Boyd’s method and so their journey into the remainder of CWG will be hindered. If one is unwilling or unable to grant this crucio-centric point, the rest of CWG will likely strike them as fatally flawed. That’s why it was smart for Boyd to include an entire chapter of responses to potential objections (chapter 6). I’d encourage critics to read this chapter before posting an objection to which Boyd has already offered a response; save yourself the embarrassment.

Part 2: The Problem of Divine Violence

By establishing the cross-centered topography of Scripture, Boyd exacerbates the contrast between the revelation of God in Christ and the revelation of God in portraits of divine violence (PDVs). That is what part two is all about. Boyd builds the tension to highlight as clearly as possible the need for a solution.

Part two has three chapters (7-9). In chapter 7, Boyd provides a survey of the so-called “texts of terror,” (PDVs). But, he doesn’t start with the PDVs, because, contrary to the claims of critics, Boyd is no Marcionite. He believes God is revealed in the Hebrew Bible as beautiful, loving, and redeeming. Boyd believes the normative picture of God in the Old Testament is one of a God of covenantally-faithful love. Nevertheless, Boyd must invite readers, with him, to wrestle with the “dark side of the Bible.” And as you’d expect, all the usual suspects are present: so-called “holy” war, the genocidal ‘herem’ command, violence in the psalms, using nations against one another, etc.

The next two chapters survey solutions to this tension, which Boyd frames in two categories. The first he calls the “Dismissal Solution” (chapter 8). The second he calls the “Synthesis Solution” (chapter 9). Already some have predictably objected to Boyd’s characterization on both sides, but I have read several of the books in these categories and I found Boyd to be fair. An entire book could be devoted to surveying the solutions on offer. Boyd has to get to his proposed solution and the book is long enough already!

As an example of the Dismissal Solution, Boyd points to a paradigmatic statement from Eric Seibert’s book Disturbing Divine Behavior: “Acknowledging that there are some things in the Bible that did not happen, effectively exonerates God from certain kinds of morally questionable behavior.” (342) Does it though?

I agree with Boyd that, while Peter Enns is incredibly insightful, he too falls into this category when he writes, “[…]the Bible’s version of events is not what happened.” Within the confines of the historical-critical method, Enns’ conclusions are completely justifiable. But, as Boyd will contend, we need not be so confined. Others Boyd cites as examples are also scholars for whom Boyd has deep respect: Dennis Weaver, C. S. Cowles, Derek Flood, and more. Boyd does not condemn these scholars, as others have. Boyd simply contends there is a better way forward.

But, before he gets to his proposed hermeneutic, he must also survey those of the “Synthesis Solution.” Honestly, this solution has never appealed to me. Even as a new Christian, whenever I heard arguments that God was both mercilessly violent and revealed in the crucified Christ, such a notion was entirely unacceptable. Nevertheless, if Boyd is going to accurately survey the solutions on offer, he must draw attention to some of the most common arguments for synthesis. Two of these are the “Beyond-Our-Categories” defense and the “Might-is-Right” perspective.

As you can probably guess from their labels, these arguments aren’t very persuasive to anyone with the conviction that Jesus’s Way is a way of nonviolence. Were God to be utterly beyond our categories, Jesus’s Incarnation would be incomplete at best but more likely a complete hoax. If God were utterly beyond our categories how could the church claim with any integrity that God is revealed in Christ? And if might made right, then Paul’s characteristic way of talking about Jesus and the cross’s power-in-weakness (e.g. I Cor. 1) would likewise make no sense.

I found Boyd’s straightforward rebuttals of these arguments more than sufficient.

“[…]there is no basis for thinking that our moral compasses were so completely obliterated [by the fall] that we cannot know that certain behaviors (e.g., commanding people to mercilessly kill infants) are always wrong.” (386)

“In Christ, God does not coerce our submission with an unassailable divine authority; he wins our allegiance by displaying his humble, self-sacrificial character.” (391)

One of the best parts of this section was Boyd’s exposing of the hypocrisy with which classical theists treat PDVs. Classical theists are those who privilege divine characteristics derived from philosophical reflection over divine characteristics derived from the biblical narrative. While the Bible provides straightforward accounts of God regretting outcomes in the narrative, changing God’s mind, and speaking as though the future is partly open, the classical theological tradition has taught Christians to reinterpret these passages as not reflecting the truth about God’s nature. Since their philosophical assumptions are incompatible with these portraits, they teach us we must read such anthropomorphisms as devoid of any actual correspondence to the divine nature. However, when the same narrative speaks of God committing or commanding grotesque violence, in clear contrast to the nonviolent revelation of God in Christ, those in the same tradition teach that these PDVs are meant to be taken quite literally. (409)

While the Synthesis Solution attempts to preserve the integrity of the Bible, it compromises the unique and supreme revelation of God in Christ. And while the Dismissal Solution attempts to preserve the unique and supreme revelation of God in Christ, it compromises the integrity of the Bible. That’s why Boyd believes he must forge a new way forward. This “Reinterpretation Solution” is what Boyd calls “The Cruciform Hermeneutic.”

Part 3: The Cruciform Hermeneutic

Part Three of Volume I is made up of three chapters (10-12). After first establishing the crucio-centric paradigm of Scripture in part one, then setting up the problem of PDVs in part two, he now turns to constructing a positive proposal. He has already shown the insufficiency of both the Dismissal Solution and the Synthesis Solution. So, what strategy is left? Answer: the Reinterpretation Solution.

The ‘Origen’ of the Reinterpretation Solution

Chapter 10 is largely devoted to exploring the contribution of one of the church’s most brilliant thinkers. Origen lived from late second century to the middle of the third. Boyd’s interest in Origen is as the “most prolific” and “most insightful proponent” of the early church tradition of allegorical interpretation of Scripture. Origen is an important precedent-setter for Boyd for several reasons. First, Origen was committed to the Scriptures as divinely-inspired. This didn’t, however, commit Origen to accepting surface readings of troubling passages. For Origen, an interpretation needed to be “worthy of God.” This meant that when he encountered a passage that, on the surface seemed to contradict the revelation of God in Christ, Origen searched for a deeper meaning.

“ ‘The Holy Spirit supervised’ the writing of Scripture, Origen says, such that there are things that ‘at first glance,’ seem ‘neither… true nor useful.’ These are inspired ‘stumbling blocks,’ ‘interruptions of the historical sense,’ ‘impossibilities,’ ‘incongruities,’ and things that ‘could not have happened at all.’ Such things, Origen holds, ‘present a barrier to the reader and lead him to refuse to proceed along the pathway of the ordinary meaning.’ By ‘shutting us out’ and ‘debarring us from that [literal interpretation],’ the Holy Spirit motivates us to consider ‘another way’ that ‘can bring us, through the entrance of a narrow footpath, to a higher and loftier road and lay open the immense breath of the divine wisdom.’ In cases such as these, Origen continues, we are forced to ‘search for a truth deeper down’ as we ‘try to discover in the Scriptures which we believe to be inspired by God a meaning worthy of God.’” (428)

Throughout CWG, Boyd will make frequent use of Origen’s language and concept here. Like Origen, he will contend that the treasure hidden in the text is discovered when we uncover the meaning worthy of God in its cruciform depths, not on the violent surface. Boyd recognizes that allegorical interpretation will seem “forced” to Modern readers. He isn’t advocating a return to that particular method. Instead, Boyd is proposing a species of reinterpretation in the same genus.

“[…]while the particular way in which Origen and other early Christian thinkers found nonviolent interpretations for violent depictions of God is no longer feasible, I am convinced there assumption that there had to be a Christ-centered, nonviolent way of interpreting these portraits was absolutely correct.” (456)

Cruciform Forerunners

Chapter 11 starts out with a section I really enjoyed. Boyd highlights six “forerunners” whose thought mirrors and in some cases has contributed to Boyd’s own. In each case, the forerunner has made the connection between the cruciform nature of God revealed in Christ and the way the Scriptures are intended to be interpreted. One of the reasons I loved this section was because so many of these thinkers have been influential for me also. I confess that I have not read as much of their work as I would like, but I have read enough to taste a sampling of what Boyd points to and I have savored it.

For example, I’ve been very grateful for John Goldingay’s contribution to the For Everyone series of commentaries on the Old Testament. As I’ve read his writing in that series, I’ve been struck time and again by his commitment to the biblical narrative over and against systematic theologies and metaphysics. In that series, as well as in other works, Goldingay follows the evidence the narrative gives to its reasonable conclusions, regardless of how troubling those conclusions might be to Reformed theologians, for example. In the tradition of Walter Brueggemann, Goldingay is not beholden to such theological constructs. This means that Goldingay routinely comes to conclusions that are in line with those of Open theists like Boyd and myself. Where those who are beholden to a particular systematic theology feel compelled to interpret passages which depict God in dynamic relationship with human history in a way that directly contradicts the text, Goldingay is more inclined to contradict such traditions instead. For that reason, I have appreciated his scholarship for many years.

Likewise, Richard Hays has been a voice in academic theology that I have appreciated for many years. In his writings, I have sensed his deliberate attempts to take a fresh look at biblical passages untethered to theological traditions. Where I’ve seen this most evident has been in his willingness to reimagine the Judaism of Paul’s day in light of the best scholarship available today, rather than relying on traditions which impose foreign ideology upon the text.

Finally, I was excited to see Jürgen Moltmann on the list. Of those on the list, he is by far the thinker who has most challenged me and stretched my theological imagination. One of the aspects of his thought that has most impressed and inspired me is precisely the aspect which gains him place on this list: his crucio-centrism. For Moltmann, the cross is the clearest window into the character and nature of God. So too, the cross is the key to the interpretation of the biblical narrative. With the immense depth that Moltmann captures in his writing on this subject, it’s no surprise Boyd writes, “[…]I consider him to be the thinker who most keenly anticipates the hermeneutic I am putting forth[…]” (476)

Nevertheless, as pioneering as each of the six forerunners are, none of them applies their crucio-centrism to the PDVs as Boyd does in CWG. Boyd sees himself as someone in the same stream of thought as these six, but allowing himself to be carried further down on the current. “The hermeneutic I am proposing is simply attempting to take the insights of Moltmann—along with those of the previous five thinkers—and apply them consistently to all Scripture, and hence to the OT’s violent portraits of God that none of these thinkers addressed.” (480) Adding T. F. Torrance to the three names mentioned above, I find Boyd to be in very good company.

God-breathed

In chapter 12, Boyd begins to make some very specific claims about the way his unique contribution will give rise to the 3D cross from the two-dimensional text. The first of these claims is that the “God-breathed” nature of Scripture is a two-way street. This means that not only did God breath the Scriptures in the sense that God acted upon the characters in the narrative and upon the authors of Scripture, but that God was acted upon by them. This means that the stories are not one-sided. God is not the only actor in the drama. God is not the only agent at work. This is tacitly affirmed by many, if not most, Christians. But Boyd will flesh out its implications to an extent that will make some feel uncomfortable and others feel liberated.

The cross reveals that God only acts in history to demonstrate God’s love, it also reveals that God also allows Godself to be acted upon by human agents. Boyd is saying this relational self-giving and self-taking is indicative of the cruciform character and nature of God. And, Boyd is saying this cruciform character is reflected directly in the way God is depicted in the text itself.

In the same way God reveals God’s love by allowing Godself to be crucified in the Son, God reveals God’s love by allowing Godself to be crucified in the Bible.

Here’s how Boyd puts it:

“Given that God is a relational God, even within his own eternal being, and given that the biblical narrative as a whole reveals that God accomplishes everything—including, especially, the crucifixion—by working through non-coercive mutually impacting relationships, it ought not surprise us that his revelatory ‘breathing’ is accomplished by this means.” (482)

Just as the cross involved human beings sinfully acting upon Christ, crucifying him, and just as the cross had God acting toward human beings by the Father giving over the Son and the Son giving up himself for our sake, the biblical narrative also reflects this dialectical nature. The divine author acts upon the chapter of God in the text of Scripture and human authors act upon the character of God in the text of Scripture. Just as the cross is a two-way street, so is Scripture.

“God certainly takes the initiative as the Holy Spirit works in the hearts and minds of the human authors, but he also leaves the personhood of the human authors intact, which conditions the results of his ‘breathing’ through them. Hence we find, to one degree or another, something of God and something of the human authors in all biblical writings.” (484)

At this point, astute critics will shout “Aha! I found a flaw in Boyd’s logic!” They will connect the dots and claim that even the New Testament which claims Christ is the climax of revelation would also bear the conditioning of its human authors. To this, Boyd offers two arguments why this does not undercut his premise.

First, as he has argued in many places, including earlier in CWG, Boyd has reasons beyond the inspiration of Scripture to center his faith on the person of Jesus Christ. These reasons include, but aren’t limited to historical, philosophical, and existential. Boyd’s faith, and thus, Boyd’s cruciform hermeneutic is not itself solely reliant on the inspiration of the New Testament. By contrast, Boyd’s faith that the New Testament (and the whole canon of Scripture) is inspired by God is instead reliant on all of Boyd’s reasons for believing that Jesus is Lord and Christ.

Second, Boyd argues, along the same lines as the apostle Paul in I Corinthians chapter 1, the cross upends typical human conceptions of power and wisdom. Thus, the counter-intuitive nature of the cross supports Boyd’s claim that its revelation is the criteria by which all other portions of the canon are to be judged.

“[…]far from reflecting people’s fallen and culturally conditioned views of God, the revelation of God on the cross contradicts not only the dominant way first-century people viewed God, but the dominant way fallen and culturally conditioned people have always tended to imagine God/gods.” (490)

So, Boyd’s contention in this portion of the chapter is that the Scriptures themselves demonstrate a quality that is reflected in the cross event itself. Namely, the Scriptures possess the quality of revealing human sinfulness acting toward God, and God’s revelatory love acting toward humanity. Boyd argues that both of these aspects of Scripture are entailed in what is meant by “God-breathed”.

Seeing Scripture in 3D

Yet, there is still another point Boyd wants to make in this chapter. It’s not enough to merely acknowledge that Scripture contains both a sinful, human-facing aspect as well as a revelatory, God-facing aspect. To begin employing the Cruciform Hermeneutic, one must begin to differentiate between that which is human-facing and that which is God-facing, with the cross as the criteria. The cross is a model for seeing in 3D because on the two-dimensional surface the cross is a horrible picture of human cruelty and terrorism. There’s nothing redemptive about the story on the surface. Yet, for Christians, the cross takes on an entirely different meaning from the surface appearance. “The revelatory content of the cross, is located not in the ugly, sin-mirroring surface appearance of the event but in God’s loving condescension to take on this ugly surface appearance.” (497) So, how does the cross take on an entirely different meaning from what the surface shows? Boyd’s answer is faith.

Faith is a lens that allows those with it to see what is hidden to those without it. Faith has an unveiling effect on those who have been gifted with it. Faith is what changed Saul of Tarsus’s “worldly point of view” on Jesus (II Cor. 5.16), and it’s only faith that changes any person’s “worldly point of view” on Jesus or anyone else. As Boyd writes,

“[…]we must exercise faith to see beyond the sin-mirroring appearance of the crucified, godforsaken criminal to behold God stooping out of love to bear our sin and to thereby take on an ugly appearance that mirrors that sin, so too we must be prepared to exercise faith when reading Scripture to see beyond the sin-mirroring literary appearances of a violent God in order to behold God stooping out of love to bear the sin of his people and to thereby take on these ugly literary appearances.” (497)

Faith is what grants a person access to “indirect” revelation in the Scriptures, to borrow again from Origen, and faith is what allows readers to hear the “voice behind the voice.” (504) Boyd points out this is what Paul is getting at with his contrast of the “letter that kills” and the Spirit that “gives life” (cf. II Cor. 3.6). Also, Paul assumes this with this discussion of the “veil” that has been taken away in Christ.

We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. — II Cor. 3.13-16 NIV

Paul taught that there is a Christological meaning to “Moses” (i.e. Torah) that is “unveiled” by faith in Christ. That is precisely what Boyd is saying. But, so that readers are able to track with him, Boyd will go into more detail in the next chapter (13), the final chapter of Volume I.

A Question of Method

To understand what Boyd is teaching, some will need to be convinced by more in-depth scholarly support. That is what chapter 13 is all about. In this chapter, Boyd goes into great detail regarding the relationship of the Cruciform Hermeneutic to other hermeneutics. This chapter gets very technical at points and that is probably why many of the objections I’ve read to CWG either ignore this chapter or grossly misunderstand it. Few people want to admit they read this chapter but didn’t fully grasp what Boyd was saying. I get that; it’s not the easiest chapter to understand. So, let’s try to walk through it slowly.

First, Boyd introduces readers to a school of hermeneutics called “TIS,” which stands for “Theological Interpretation of Scripture.” Since it’s likely some of CWG’s readers will not be familiar with this approach, they will likely find it suspicious. I think this is why Boyd goes to great lengths not only to explain what TIS is, but also to show that it has proponents from “the entire liberal-conservative spectrum” (518). But there really is no reason to be suspicious of TIS. In short, TIS is simply an acknowledgment that the Bible is unlike other “books,” and must be read with “the eyes of faith within the community of faith.” (520) This is in direct contrast to the historical-critical method that developed in the context of the Enlightenment’s scientific fervor. Because of the Enlightenment values such as the power of reason to obtain truth apart from religious tradition, the discipline of biblical scholarship came to be treated no different than scholarship of any other ancient literature. Faith commitments came to be viewed as a corrupting influence on what could otherwise be “objective” analysis. Boyd points to Karl Barth’s contribution as a major catalyst for a shift in this regard. Barth’s work reinvigorated an interest in scholarly study of the Scriptures as the “word of God,” within and for the church. In fact, Boyd will go as far as to say that a strictly historical-critical hermeneutical approach even changes the nature of the Bible for the one studying it since it rejects submission to the divine authority which underwrites the Bible (521).

However, Boyd is also not prepared to go as far as what he calls a “radical postmodern” approach which, with Vanhoozer, Boyd thinks falls into a “muddy ditch” (523). Boyd nobly attempts to split the difference by acknowledging the impossibility of flawlessly discovering the originally intended meaning, while simultaneously reaffirming the pursuit of that originally intended meaning, within certain reasonable limits.

“I do not mean to suggest that it is possible to fully enter the ‘horizon’ of the original meaning of a text. This is not even possible when reading contemporary works, let alone when reading ancient works whose culture and worldview is vastly different from our own. But I am convinced that discovering the original meaning of a passage must nevertheless remain an ideal to which we must asymptotically strive.” (523)

This section reminded me of the view expressed by both John Polkinghorne and N. T. Wright, which they call “critical realism.” This view holds that there is an objective reality (hence, “realism”). However, it also contends that none of us will arrive that that reality perfectly (hence, “critical”). Boyd prefers to call this conviction the “Conservative Hermeneutical Principle.” This means that, while he holds that one must seek the originally intended meaning of a passage, there will be times when he will advocate that one go beyond that meaning because it conflicts with another principle. For example, he writes, “[…]if anything should be allowed to move us beyond the original meaning of a passage, it should be when we find anything ascribed to God that conflicts with the revelation of God in the crucified Christ.” (525)

With these things in mind, Boyd makes a couple more qualifications of his view. He wants readers to know specifically what he means by “infallibility,” since that can be a hot-button word for some. What Boyd means by it is constrained by what he has previously proposed. Namely,

“[…]if we approach Scripture with a humble and respectful attitude, interpret it in an informed way and within a community of believers, and trust it to bring us into an ever-deepening, covenantal, life-giving relationship with God through the crucified Christ, then Scripture will never fail us.” (527)

This a far cry from the claims of evangelicals who appeal to the Bible’s inherent “inerrancy.”

Boyd also wants readers to know that he is assuming that the Cruciform Hermeneutic is deeply shaped by the covenantal nature of Scripture. Covenant is the intersection of history and divine revelation. God’s covenantal faithfulness is what the story of the Bible is all about—and that story culminates in the story of Jesus, and particularly in his cruciformity. As Boyd puts it, “[…]every depiction of God within the written record of God’s covenantal faithfulness is ultimately intended to either directly or indirectly express the same covenantal faithfulness that is fully revealed on the cross.” (529) As more and more of these qualifications are added, it becomes clearer and clearer what the Cruciform Hermeneutic entails. That is why, as difficult as it may be, readers will need to forge through this chapter or they will limp into Volume II.

Nerd Level: Overdrive

If you’ve stuck with Boyd this far, you may have just enough energy to get through the last few sections of chapter 13, which are highly technical. Boyd goes into great detail regarding a way that Scripture can have multiple meanings for different audiences at different times, without succumbing to the “muddy ditch” of radical postmodernity. He does this with two final hermeneutical considerations: Speech-Act Theory and the Reader Response approach.

In short, speech-act theory proposes that there are three dimensions to every act of communication:

  1. The Locutionary Act — i.e. the act of vocalizing or inscribing words
  2. The Illocutionary Act — i.e. what the act is intended to accomplish
  3. The Perlocutionary Act — i.e. what the act actually accomplishes

Where multiple meanings enters this theory is at the point of illocution. As Boyd writes, “[…]a single locutionary act can involve any number of different illocutionary acts and can result in any number of different perlocutionary acts, depending on the context in which it is communicated and received.” (532)

As Brevard Childs puts it,

“[…]the ability of biblical language to resonate in a new and creative fashion when read from the vantage point of a fuller understanding of Christian truth […]is not intended to threaten the sensus literalis of the text, but to extend through figuration a reality which has been only partially heard.” (533)

This results in multiple “senses” in which Scripture speaks to us, and so we must discern not only what God said to the original audience (as near as we can), but also what God is saying to us today. (534)

Christ, the Supervening Act

Within the canon of Scripture itself, there is evidence of this sensus plenior as the authors of the New Testament reflect upon the Hebrew Bible in light of the Jesus Event. They viewed the story of God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel culminating in the story of Jesus. From a speech-act theory point of view, this could be stated this way, a “[…]central illocutionary act may supervene in such a way that it creates an entirely ‘new’ illocutionary act that the human author could never have understood or intended.” (541) This means that the authors of the Hebrew Bible did not need to “predict” Christ’s coming in any specific detail for the supervening act of Jesus’s incarnation to create new illocutions which would “fulfill” their writings. This way of thinking also pairs nicely with what Boyd next introduces into the mix: Narrative hermeneutics. Jesus’s cruciform life is the “supervening act” that opens up an entire new world of illocutionary acts within the narrative itself. It is the conclusion toward which the story has been moving and aiming all along. It’s the plot twist that resolves and makes sense of all that came before it.

Speech-act theory, coupled with canonical and narrative approaches, gives parameters to what Boyd means when he proposes that the Bible can have multiple layers of meaning without sacrificing its God’s breathed nature, it’s authoritative-in-community nature, and its correspondence to its original meaning (as far as that can be discerned). But there is one more remaining piece to the hermeneutical puzzle: Reader Response.

Developing a Mature Response to Violence

For some CWG readers, “reader response” will set off alarms. Boyd wants to make sure he properly situates his own Cruciform Hermeneutic in relationship to reader response so as to not over-identify while capitalizing on its most valuable aspects. Not unlike speech-act theory, reader response recognizes the reality of many different accomplishments which are possible because of the text. Reader response simply gives more labels to what happens when we read the text from our multiple social locations in time, class, race, gender, etc. Boyd points out that the divine intent of the text may entail a rejection of the text as a means by which the text aids in our maturing process. The Bible itself may give us reason to reject some aspects of the Bible as an expression of our faith in the God of the Bible. An example might be that, due to the biblical message of gender equality and the human dignity of women, we are called to reject portraits of divinely sanctioned oppression and dehumanization of women. Or, for example, due to the trajectory of liberation the Bible teaches, we are called to reject depictions of divinely sanctioned slavery. In the same way, the Bible itself points to the supreme revelation of God’s character and nature in the crucified Christ, calling us to reject depictions of God as a violent warlord. Because we are meant to approach the Bible within the context of covenantal faith, humility, and submission to God’s Spirit, we are called to act upon what the Bible teaches, even if that act includes critically engaging with the Bible itself. (548)

This calling to respond to the Bible itself, according to what the Bible teaches about God and humanity, is part of the training program the Bible itself outlines. Perhaps one could say that one of the perlocutionary acts of the biblical call to cruciform discipleship is the reinterpretation of PDVs. This is what Boyd is contending, going all the way back to his foundational concept of “Israelite” faith. We are called not to blindly obey God’s commands, but to wrestle with God’s word as covenant partners who bear God’s image and who will one day reign with Christ. This means we are called to critically engage with God’s word as Moses and Abraham did, when they negotiated with God or reminded God of God’s own faithful character. In renouncing the sin-mirroring surface meaning of PDVs, we are demonstrating fidelity to the cruciform love of God revealed in the crucified Christ.

Volume I Summary

In Volume I of CWG, Greg Boyd has charted a course toward a groundbreaking new interpretive approach that makes nonviolent hermeneutics a real possibility. He has established important foundational principles like our call to wrestle with Scripture as covenant partners of God and Scripture’s multi-dimensional nature due to its essential relationship to its culturally conditioned authors, the narrative that runs through it, and the people of faith called to read it. And Boyd has meticulously detailed the way that his Cruciform Hermeneutic fits within the broader tradition of Christian hermeneutics going back to Origen and on through to modern developments like TIS, speech-act theory, and reader response. Boyd doesn’t totally discount the role of the historical-critical approach, but he also doesn’t fully embrace a radical postmodern approach. Instead, he forges a new way forward that is both critical and realistic. He isn’t the first to emphasize the cross-shaped nature of God and of divine revelation in Christ, nor to apply such a cruciform hermeneutic to the Scriptures. He highlights six forerunners of this approach, upon whose work he builds. But Boyd’s unique contribution is carrying forward the Cruciform Hermeneutic into the uncharted territory of PDVs. And this is a great need today, when America’s violence-saturated culture has enveloped much of the Christian church and blinded it to the cruciform Way of Jesus. Boyd’s proposal is a breath of fresh air to those who have felt trapped on the horns of a dilemma between a commitment to the “God-breathed” Scripture on one side and fidelity to the nonviolent, crucified Messiah who supremely reveals God’s character and nature in those same Scriptures on the other. Boyd’s Cruciform Hermeneutic acts as a “Magic Eye” bringing into focus the 3D cross that leaps off the two-dimensional page of the Scriptures. And it is this 3D cross that draws us into the heart of God and develops our maturity as Jesus’s disciples. The Cruciform Hermeneutic isn’t only an academic exercise, but also an exercise in discipleship. Will we submit even our hermeneutics to the Lordship of Christ, and humbly seek to follow his cruciform Way, even if it means wrestling with our strongly-held beliefs about the Bible?

Stay tuned for parts two and three of this review as I summarize Volume II, the Cruciform Thesis, and then offer my thoughts on some of the more challenging aspects of the book.

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ToWayne Tantrums

Idolizing Greg Boyd

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Many years ago, two men named Tom Belt and Dwayne Polk (I initially elected to keep these men anonymous, but have been told they would consider it “brave” of me to name them, so I’ll oblige them) became enamored with a theologian named Greg Boyd. It’s easy to understand their admiration. Boyd is a brilliant scholar and an accomplished minister. And since their admiration was not only for Boyd’s theology, but also how he was applying it in the local church, they both moved to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area where Boyd’s church, Woodland Hills, was and remains. One of them even joined the church’s staff for a time, but later left the staff.

Of particular interest for these two men, was Boyd’s criticism of both Classical theism and Process theism in his 1992 PhD dissertation “Trinity and Process.” In this thesis, Boyd describes God’s “unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction”. (A phrase Tom and Dwayne have latched onto like it’s the Apostles’ Creed) This, Tom and Dwayne interpret as God’s “experience of imperturbable triune beatitude”. What this translates to is: God doesn’t experience any suffering or death in God’s self. Suffering or death cannot be attributed to God. God’s “bliss” in God’s self is never interrupted by suffering of any kind, not even sadness or pain over sin and injustice. Therefore, Tom and Dwayne abhor (for example) Moltmann’s theology of “God crucified.”

Homer_prancePart of their rejection of divine suffering is personal for these two. For different but similar reasons, each one finds it psychologically preferable to believe in a conception of God who does not suffer. Each finds it an indispensable part of their own personal psychological health. But another part of their rejection of divine suffering is their theological journey into Eastern Orthodox faith and belief. In this pursuit, they have adopted an interpretation of the patristic fathers’ theology that excludes divine suffering. Historical theology scholars continue to debate how much influence Greek philosophy exerted over the early theological development of Christian theology. And Open theists like Boyd (and many non-Open theists) have argued that Greek philosophy exerted undue influence on the development of early Christian theology, resulting in paradoxical statements about both “impassibility” and divine suffering. For Tom and Dwayne, there can be only one interpretation of patristic theology: Greek philosophy was right, and those streams of early Christian theology (or their interpretations of them) which embraced divine impassibility were right.

When Shattered Illusions Lead to Scapegoating

However, their project encountered a devastating blow a few years ago. Boyd, in his continued studies since 1992, came to repudiate his earlier rejections of divine suffering and began writing and preaching on God’s suffering and death on the Cross. Boyd was not saying anything new in Christian theology; he was merely teaching what Scripture reveals and other theologians interested in the liberation of the oppressed and God’s response to injustice have been saying for eons. Tom and Dwayne associated Boyd’s position with “Kenoticism” and were utterly heartbroken. Their idol had fallen. Or, as they put it, “stepped off the edge.”

Boyd steps off the edge — Part 1
Boyd steps off the edge — Part 2

Simpsons_wrathThis is the genesis of the current debate in which I’ve been implicated. I dared to defend Boyd’s position and have become the sole scapegoat of their wrath. They can’t take on Boyd, for obvious reasons, so they choose instead to vent their rage at me. They hurl insults at me because they continue to be disappointed in their theological hero who now thinks they are out to lunch.

Here’s their most recent attack against me.

In the process, these two have cut off direct communication with me and rejected any olive branch offerings of peace and reconciliation I’ve extended. Instead, they only mention me to insult me in their blog posts.

A few of the things this sad saga demonstrates are:

  1. The higher you place your theological heroes on a pedestal, the further they fall when they disappoint you. Don’t make idols of pastors or scholars; they’re human. God will shatter your illusions that any man (or woman) can fulfill the role only God should have in our lives.
  2. When you allow your psychological needs to drive your pursuit of theological truth, you will inevitably run aground of the biblical witness, reason, and even tradition. The truth is not subject to our desires for psychological comfort. Often the truth disrupts our comfort for our own good. When this happens, the emotionally mature accept the truth and adjust. The emotional immature plug their ears and bury their heads in the sand.
  3. It’s a tragedy when Christian men are willing to place their own egos before the call to peace and reconciliation. Tom and Dwayne profess faith in Christ yet have rejected all attempts at peace and reconciliation. Their profound sadness over the end of the their illusions about the perfection of Boyd’s theology has led to a breach of their ethical integrity.
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Chemical & Idolatry: Reflections on a Jack Garratt Track and the Apocalypse of John

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J.C. or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

— David Foster Wallace, “This is Water”

Late last year, I fell headlong into the music of Jack Garratt. It started with his EP, Remnants, and continued with the release of his first full album, Phase. There’s too much to say about my love for his music. Suffice to say I find it enchanting.

Meanwhile, in my teaching capacity as a pastor, I’ve been immersed in the study of Revelation. Rather than charting the Great Tribulation, or attempting to decipher which rogue agent on the world’s stage is the “antichrist,” or some such quixotic project (as Dispensationalists are want to do), I’ve been teaching John’s Apocalypse using the cruciform-centric hermeneutic that has been developed by such scholars as Richard Bauckham, Michael J. Gorman, N. T. Wright, and Greg Boyd. I’ve also been learning from works by both David DeSilva and Brian Blount, who read it through the lenses of postcolonial empire criticism and the experience of the African American church in America, respectively. And I also have to give props to Brian Zahnd’s excellent teaching ministry via the Word of Life podcast. He’s spent some extensive time in Revelation in recent months/years and it has been highly formative.

A second lens through which I’ve been reading Revelation is pedagogical. For this I blame the works of James K. A. Smith—particularly his book Desiring the Kingdom, of which he has recently published a layman’s version called You Are What You Love. Smith has succeeded in shifting my focus as a teacher from the dissemination of information to the inspiration of imaginations for the purpose of spiritual formation. (Not that I’ve mastered this; I’ve still got a lot of pedagogical baggage to overcome.)

One of the unexpected discoveries I’ve made thus far has been just how much of Revelation is pastorally concerned with spiritual formation. This should have been more obvious to me, considering that the book is so clearly addressed to seven churches from their bishop. However, I’ve spent so much of my Christian life surrounded by those who read this book as a roadmap to the “end times,” that the pastoral value of the book has rarely been presented as anything more than its ability to predict the future.

This brings me to “Chemical” by Jack Garratt.

Phase has become the soundtrack to my life for the past several months. I listen to it in the car and I listen to it while I write sermons. “Chemical” is one of the tracks that has fascinated me the most. What initially captured my attention was this:

And when you pray, he will not answer
Although you may hear voices on your mind
They won’t be kind

And when you pray, he will not answer
I know this for I ask him all the time
To reassure my mind  

Naturally, my pastoral ears perk up when prayer is mentioned. But this is clearly not a positive assessment. I’m almost ashamed to admit I didn’t understand what this track was about until I watched the video—and then the brilliance of this track blew my mind.

John of Patmos does something unparalleled in the New Testament. Instead of writing in the didactic style of the epistles, which Evangelical Modernists love, or the narrative style of the Gospels and Acts, he writes in the apocalyptic mode of a Hebrew prophet. He writes a book that takes many of the things Jesus preached in his famous “Olivet Discourse” and expands them into something that resembles a Greek drama more than a sermon. Relentlessly paraded before the eyes of our imaginations is a graphic and often grotesque onslaught of nightmarishly disturbing pictures. But as the cruciform-centric hermeneutic has taught us, these images are not meant to be taken as a journalistic, if phenomenological, account of future events. Instead, they are symbols of realities as true today as they were nineteen hundred years ago.

The Seer’s primary pastoral concern is the vision of ‘the good life’ toward which these fledgling churches (and by extension our churches today) were living. Every day, in a thousand different ways, they and we are tempted to place our trust in a story that is not the story of Jesus’s incarnation, self-giving death, and resurrection. The story in John’s day was the “Pax Romana”; the story for many of us today is the “American Dream.” The way John combats this lie is with the truth that empire is beastly and to follow its way is adultery for the people whom God has redeemed. John gives his congregations a new imagining of what ‘the good life’ is all about. Instead of conquest as violent domination, conquest becomes giving faithful witness to God’s grace in and through Jesus. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Messiah Jesus, is revealed as the little, slaughtered Lamb who yet stands and reigns from the very center of the God’s throne. True power is not located in the military might of Rome’s armies but in the self-giving love and wisdom of God demonstrated on the Cross and in the Resurrection.

“Revelation does not contain two competing Christologies and theologies—one of power and one of weakness—symbolized by the Lion and the Lamb, respectively. Rather, Revelation presents Christ as the Lion who reigns as the Lamb, not in spite of being the Lamb. […] ‘Lamb power’ is ‘God power,’ and ‘God power’ is ‘Lamb power.’ If these claims are untrue, then Jesus is not in any meaningful way a faithful witness.” [1]

The New Heaven and New Earth is a vision the world gone wrong finally made right. It is a reimagining of the vision of shalom ubiquitous among the writings of the Hebrew prophets—not just some tranquil “peace,” but the world as it should be. This is the vision the churches are to be proleptically embodying now in part as a foretaste of what’s to come.

But, like a fish in water, we unconsciously swim in the current of our surrounding culture and the desires of our hearts are molded and shaped by our environment. We are indoctrinated into believing that ‘the good life’ is found in the acquisition of power, wealth, and pleasure. We surrender our agency to the pursuit of these ends and we become instruments of the powers that be. This is what the psalmist is describing when he warns that placing our trust in human-made idols numbs us to the life-giving Spirit of the Creator God.

The idols of the nations are merely things of silver and gold, shaped by human hands. They have mouths but cannot speak, and eyes but cannot see. They have ears but cannot hear, and mouths but cannot breathe. And those who make idols are just like them, as are all who trust in them. — Psalm 135.15-18 NLT

Here’s how N. T. Wright puts it:

“You become what you worship: so, if you worship that which is not God, you become something other than the image-bearing human being you were meant and made to be. […] Worship idols—blind, deaf, lifeless things—and you become blind, deaf and lifeless yourself. Murder, magic, fornication and theft are all forms of blindness, deafness and deadliness, snatching at the quick fix for gain, power or pleasure while forfeiting another bit of genuine humanness.” [2]

“Chemical” is about the power we give our idols—with which they mercilessly destroy our humanity. The “love” idols have for us is the “love” of an abusive master. It is not a relationship of mutuality, interdependence, nor understanding; it is a relationship of utter domination. As David Foster Wallace put it, “[they] will eat you alive.”

My love is overdone, selfish and domineering
It won’t sit up on the shelf
So don’t try to reason with my love
My love is powerful, ruthless and unforgiving
It won’t think beyond itself
So don’t try to reason with my love

My love is chemical, shallow and chauvinistic
It’s an arrogant display
So don’t try to reason with my love

The apostle Paul famously describes love in a letter to the Jesus-disciples of Corinth. If you’ve ever been to a wedding, you probably know at least this much Scripture.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. — I Corinthians 13.4-8 NIV

Our idols aren’t patient or kind; they aren’t self-giving or forgiving. Our idols demand subservience at all costs—especially the loss of our humanity.

The pastoral mission of John of Patmos is to inspire the imaginations of God’s people—to place before them the vision of the Lamb Who Was Slain—the only One worthy to reign in heaven—because he is the embodiment of self-giving love. The Lamb moves us to worship not because of some ‘shock and awe’ display of brute force. No, the Lamb moves us to worship because the self-giving love of God smites our hearts with a power that could never be possessed by tanks or bombs. The image of God being restored in God’s redeemed people is the vocation of serving as priestly rulers on God’s behalf, reflecting God’s loving reign into the world God loves.

The questions with which John of Patmos confronts us are of allegiance and trajectory.

What vision of ‘the good life’ is forming the desires of our hearts—the shape and aim of our lives—through the everyday practices in which we often unconsciously participate?

__________________

  1. Michael J. Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness Following the Lamb Into the New Creation (Cascade Books, 2011), p.139.
  2. N. T. Wright, Revelation For Everyone (Westminster John Knox, 2011), p.92.
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The Lamb at the Center of Worship: St. John’s Revelation and Greg Boyd’s Cruciform-centric Hermeneutic

Intro: Christians Who Don’t Worship Christ?

Until recently, I took it for granted that all Christians understood and agreed on at least one simple fact: That the Bible teaches Messiah Jesus of Nazareth (his life and teachings) is the definitive, perfect, and final revelation of God. After all, the writer of Hebrews makes this much clear:

“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”
– Heb. 1.1-3 (NIV, emphasis added)

Or consider Jesus’s answer to Phillip’s request to see the “Father” (God) to whom Jesus keeps referring,

“Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?
– John 14.8-9 (NIV, emphasis added)

Or, if Jesus’s words don’t impress you (as has especially become the trend among Calvinists), and you need Paul’s didactic teaching style to convince you, consider this gem:

“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form…
– Col. 2.8-9 (NIV, emphasis added)

What a fool I’ve been: I presumed there was at least one common area of agreement among those who call themselves “Christians”—that we worship Christ!  But, from recent discussions online and offline, it appears I was wrong. Instead, what I’ve learned is that some look for a god behind and beyond Jesus. For them, other revelation must be added to Jesus in order for them to receive God’s “full” self-revelation. Why they insist on calling themselves “Christians” then, I couldn’t tell you. Perhaps a more appropriate label might be “godians.”

greg-boyd_croppedIn particular, the “Christians” with whom I’ve been discussing are angry about Greg Boyd’s proposal of a “cruciform-centric” hermeneutic 1.  Boyd is unabashedly influenced by (Neo) Anabaptist theology, which has historically advocated for a Christ-centered (“christocentric”) reading of Scripture. This is nothing new. Even (New) Calvinists claim to be Christ-centered these days. 2  What Boyd adds to this interpretive methodology is the biblical idea that discipleship is the process of emulating one’s Master. (Shocking, I know!) Since Jesus laid down his life, and we are Jesus’s disciples, we too are called to lay down our lives—to demonstrate radical, self-sacrificial love (Eph. 5.1-2; Phil. 2.1-11; I Jn. 3.16). This process is now being called “cruciformity”—being formed by the cross, living out cross-shaped love. 3

The objection from some is that this approach is an external grid being imposed on the Scripture, and is therefore eisegesis (importing meaning to the Text), rather than exegesis (drawing meaning from the Text). Objectors also claim that such an approach undermines Scripture’s inspiration and authority. By applying the lens of Jesus’s cross to passages where God is depicted as violent (for example), these objectors also claim Boyd is attempting to ignore portions of Scripture or cut them out of the Bible entirely. 4

In what follows, I will demonstrate that the Bible itself, namely the book of Revelation, teaches Jesus-disciples to apply the cruciform-centric hermeneutic that Boyd describes. In so doing, I will prove that the cruciform-centric hermeneutic is not some external grid being imposed upon Scripture, but is instead Scripture’s own teaching for Christians. Therefore, the cruciform-centric hermeneutic is the appropriate interpretive methodology for Christians (i.e. those who worship Christ).

The Parallel of Worship in Heaven and Worship in the Church

Throne-Room-Heaven-RevelationThe Apocalypse (“Revelation”) of St. John is a widely misunderstood book. Many Western Christians, influenced by popular forms of Dispensationalism 5  the likes of which can be found in the Left Behind books and movies, think of it as a future prediction code to be deciphered. Many search the book looking for clues about what will happen in the “end times.” While John certainly does speak of Christ’s return and sees a vision of the final telos of history, the primary flaw this approach suffers is that it overlooks the immediate and pastoral context. Revelation was written for us, but it was not written to us. Instead, it was written to seven churches by their pastor, the apostle John.

With this fact in mind, we can begin to understand John’s authorial intent. By reminding ourselves of the historical context, we can begin to piece together the meaning the book had for its original hearers. Then we can attempt to draw application from that meaning for our context today.

The setting is late first-century, Roman-occupied “Asia Minor,” where Christian congregations have been formed, and where severe persecution has afflicted the followers of the Way. Nevertheless, these courageous believers (many of whom are Jewish) gather together weekly to worship on the “Lord’s Day,” which is Sunday—the day Jesus rose from the dead. Why Sunday and not Saturday? The answer is both simple and profound: the Resurrection changed everything! The Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, is alive and reigns forever! He has defeated Satan, the powers, and death itself! The early Christians worshipped on Sunday because the early Christians worshipped Jesus!

Add to this what we know about the structure of early Christian worship:

  • First, early Christians were baptized with water as a sign that they have died with Christ to their old live and have been raised with Christ to new life. Christ is at the heart of this ritual, which serves as initiation into the Church, the family of believers.
  • Second, early Christians studied the Scriptures (the Hebrew Bible) and received teaching on their meaning. In light of Christ’s coming, the meaning of the Hebrew Bible has been complete transformed. Every apostolic author in the New Testament quotes the Hebrew Bible to teach that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. The Advent of Christ into the world has completely changed the way the early Christians approach the Hebrew Scriptures. In them, they now find Christ. 6
  • Third, early Christians celebrated a meal together called a “Love Feast” or what some call an “Agape Meal.” At this meal, believers in Christ shared in table fellowship regardless of socio-economic status in the world’s eyes, regardless of ethnicity, regardless of age, and regardless of gender. During this meal, the Christians would remember the death their Lord and Savior suffered for them. In the participation of the Eucharistic meal, the early Christians worshipped Christ—weekly.

Eugene Peterson writes,

“The throne, the sea, and the altar are the glorious originals of the pulpit, font, and table in the house churches where St. John’s congregations gathered week by week in their Lord’s Day worship.” 7

Who is Worthy to Open the Scroll?

hebrew-scroll-torahAt the center of the heavenly worship gathering sits a throne—the throne of God. By the way some Christians speak of God, the throne should be empty. Seated on the throne should be an amorphous cloud of undefinable yet all-encompassing god-ness. But that is not what John sees. Standing at the center of the throne, the seat of power and sovereignty and rule, the center of all worship, all power, is the crucified Lamb: Jesus of Nazareth (Rev. 5.6). This should shock and arrest any Christian who does not think Jesus is the definitive revelation of God. This imagery is clear: Jesus is God! There is no god behind, beyond Jesus the Messiah! There is no god behind, beyond the Crucified One!

What happens next boggles and perplexes many modern readers.

I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered…
– Rev. 5.1-6 (NIV)

For many modern readers, the “scroll” John speaks of here is mysterious. Theories abound and are filled with symbolism, secrets, futuristic woes and blessings. But because we have set out to understand what the Text meant to its original hearers first, before we attempt to apply its meaning to our context, we do not suffer from such delusions. Instead, we remember that the worship of the early Christians prominently featured the scrolls of Scripture. In fact, the people of God have worshipped God with the reading of God’s Spirit-inspired Texts for hundreds of years. In Jewish worship, the Torah was read aloud in synagogues every Sabbath day, and also the scrolls of the prophets. In Christian worship, the same scrolls were opened, but with new meaning and a new Subject: King Jesus, the Lord of Lords, YHWH Incarnate.

[Jesus] went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
– Luke 4.16-21 (NIV)

The Scriptures that the Jews read every Sabbath day were sealed, shrouded in mystery, bound up waiting until the Word, the One by Whom all things were spoken into existence, would stand before humanity and declare that the time has come for them to be fulfilled! The hearts of the Jewish believers were veiled, and a veil remained each time the Hebrew Scriptures were read. That is, until Jesus came! Jesus lifts the veil, revealing the Truth, uncovering mysteries. (II Cor. 3.7-18)

Jesus is the One who reveals the Truth of the Scriptures. Jesus is the One who uncovers the mystery long sealed in the Sacred Text.

[Jesus] said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
– Luke 24.25-27 (NIV)

Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.
– Acts 8.29-35 (NIV)

Only Jesus is worthy to open the scroll, because only Jesus has suffered and laid down his life for humanity. Only Jesus is worthy to open the scroll, because only Jesus is the embodiment of YHWH’s Wisdom.

Again Peterson illuminates,

“Scroll” to a first-century Christian would mean scripture. The scrolls they were most familiar with were the great scrolls of scripture in the synagogues. Scrolls were respected and valued. God’s people believe that God speaks, that he tells us who he is and what he does. He is not a deus absconditus but a deus revelatus. His words are spoken to his people so that they will know his actions for them, his will in them. And these words were written in scrolls. It is to be expected in the act of worship that a scroll will appear. But the scroll is sealed. […]

In the midst of the great act of worship, St. John had wept because there was no one to unseal the scroll and proclaim God’s word personally to him (Rev. 5:4). Then Jesus Christ, in the form of the Lamb, came forward to unseal the scroll, that is, to preach to him. Immediately his weeping ceased: God reveals his word as Christ preaches to us. Is there meaning in the evil chaos of history? We hope there is a clue tucked away in the rubble. The unsealing of the scroll—the revelation of Jesus Christ whereby God’s will is known among us—is a proclamation of this good news in the midst of history. There is a correspondence between what is going on in the midst of worship and what is going on in the midst of history, and Jesus Christ, unsealing the scroll, provides it. We do not have to wait for the future revelation to find the meaning. We do not have to unravel a puzzle to figure out the meaning. It is presented to us. And Christ is the one who presents it.” 8

The Cross-Shaped Hermeneutic of Obedience

cruciform-lightJesus calls his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him (Mt. 10.38, 16.24; Mk. 8.34; Lk. 9.23, 14.27). To follow Jesus means to live like he lived (I Jn. 2.6). To live as Jesus lived, we too must lay down our lives for others (Eph. 5.1-2; Phil. 2.1-11; I Jn. 3.16). For Jesus-disciples, the cross is more than a historical event—it becomes a Way of Life (Gal. 6.14). This is the “cruciformity” to which Boyd and Gorman refer.

The Jesus-disciple lives a life formed by their Master’s example, emulating Jesus’s cross-shaped love. Not only is our interpretation of Scripture informed by this fact, but it informs our interpretation of all life! Every person we encounter, every obstacle we face, every achievement is another opportunity to love like Jesus—to die to ourselves and the world, growing in the life of the age to come. The more we live it out, the more the Scriptures become clear. The Anabaptists call this the “hermeneutic of obedience.” Jesus didn’t say the truth will set us free, then we will hold to his teaching. No, he said we must hold to his teaching—then we will know the truth and be set free (Jn. 8.31-32). Obedience precedes the liberation of enlightenment. “Doing” the Scriptures reveals their truth. And “doing” the Scriptures means obeying Jesus. He is our Teacher, our Master. He is the Lord—the Crucified One.

Conclusion: Christians Worship the Lamb Who Was Slain

The life of Jesus’s disciples is a life of worship. We demonstrate our loyalty, our allegiance to Jesus by following his example and holding to his teaching. In dying with Christ, we live. Being in Christ means living crucified lives—lives formed by the cross—lives of demonstrative, unconditional, self-sacrificial love.

In worship, now as in the first-century, we read the Holy Scriptures. Only now, because of our discipleship, we read them anew. They have been opened to us by the Messiah, the only Worthy One. Only the Lamb is worthy to open the scrolls because only the Lamb has been slain for us. And only in the Lamb’s sacrifice is God fully revealed. Now the veil is lifted, mysteries are uncovered, and the seal is broken.

At the center of Christian worship is the Lamb who was slain. Whether we are celebrating baptism: our old lives being buried with Christ, and being raised with Christ to a new life; or whether we are sharing in the Eucharistic meal, celebrating the Final Passover Lamb, slain for us; or whether we are reading and teaching from the Holy Scriptures, the scrolls now open by the Wisdom of God; Jesus the Messiah is the starting place and telos of worship—the Alpha and the Omega.

_______________________

  1. “Hermeneutic” refers to interpretation, especially of the Bible. Boyd’s proposal is that Christians interpret the Bible with a Christo-centric (Jesus-centered) lens. But more than that—that Christians remember that the Jesus through whom God is perfectly revealed is the Jesus who died on the cross. And we, his disciples, are to follow his example. That is what “cruciform” means: to be formed by the cross. Therefore, Boyd’s suggestion is that our discipleship informs our biblical interpretation. You can read first-hand about Boyd’s proposal for a “cruciform-centric” hermeneutic in his upcoming book, Crucifixion of the Warrior God (IVP 2014?), and on the ReKnew Ministries blog here:
    Christ-Centered or Cross-Centered?
    Answering an Objection to a Cross-Centered Approach to Scripture [Q&A]
    Cruciform Aikido Pt 1: Jesus and the Violent God
  2. Matt Chandler, Creature of the Word: The Jesus-Centered Church (The Village Church, 2012); “In Defense of a Christ-Centered Hermeneutic” by Mike Leake http://sbcvoices.com/in-defense-of-a-christ-centered-hermeneutic-or-a-reply-to-dr-eric-hankins/;  “Jesus Centered Reformed Theology” http://www.acts29network.org/sermon/jesus-centered-reformed-theology–san-diego-2006/.
  3. Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Eerdmans, 2001); Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Eerdmans, 2009).
  4. Ultra-conservative Evangelicals (or more accurately: Fundamentalists) routinely confuse the rejection of their interpretations of passages in the Bible with rejection of the Bible itself. They make the mistake of considering their interpretation to be authoritative, rather than the God whom the Bible reveals. What is gained by such tight control on interpretive methodology is political power. By insisting that their interpretative methodology is the only valid methodology, they maintain the status quo and preserve their gatekeeper positions. This is at the heart of the objections to Boyd’s proposed hermeneutic.
  5. Dispensationalism
  6. John 5.39; Luke 24.25-27; Gal. 3.8; I Pet. 2.6-8; Heb. 1.5-13; Rev. 19.15.
  7. Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination (Harper Collins 1988), p.63.
  8. Ibid., 64, 73-74.
Boyd_of_Straw1

Building a Boyd of Straw with Sound Bite Scholarship

1. Historical Setting:

Openness-of-GodThe Openness of God was published in 19941 and made significant waves in evangelical theological scholarship circles. The view detailed in that book wasn’t new; it had been held by many Christian theologians throughout Church history2, but what made the book so significant is that the evangelical theological landscape in the United States had shifted and a new regime was in power: Neo-Calvinists3. These conservative evangelical scholars viewed Open theology as a threat to their new found hegemony, so they sought to discredit and marginalize Open theists. Two of the clearest examples of this were the attempt in 2000 by John Piper to have Greg Boyd ousted from the faculty of Bethel Seminary, the denominational seminary of the Baptist General Conference (now “Converge”), and the 2002 attempt to expel John Sanders and Clark Pinnock from the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS).4 In both cases the complaints were brought by Neo-Calvinists. Another casualty of these Neo-Calvinist inquisitions was Roger Olson, a classical Arminian scholar. He has written candidly about the dishonest and dishonorable ways he was treated by Neo-Calvinists simply for suggesting Open theists were not heretics and that Open theism deserves to be consider a legitimate evangelical position.5 In 2010, Dr. Olson had this to say,

“The controversy has largely died down now.  But there are many stories yet to be told about it. I believe much of the controversy over open theism among evangelicals was fueled by misinformation, misrepresentation and down right demagoguery.  In many places and at many times open theism and open theists did not receive a fair hearing.  And I know of cases in which evangelical critics knowingly misrepresented open theism in order to create fear of it among the untutored (i.e., people who would never pick up and read a book by an open theist).

As I look back on that decade long controversy now, my heart is heavy for evangelicalism.  I was profoundly disillusioned by the dishonesty and lack of sincerity of many evangelical luminaries who I know read books by open theists and often talked with open theists about their views and nevertheless went public with blatant misrepresentations.  I was also profoundly disillusioned by the heat of the controversy in which some evangelical scholars and leaders hurled accusations and charges against open theists that were completely out of proportion to the amount of time and effort they had spent in dialogue with their fellow evangelicals who either were open theists or sympathized with them.”6

The beginning of the decade Olson describes is the setting in which an author with whom I am unfamiliar, named Paul Kjoss Helseth, wrote a critique of Greg Boyd’s Open theism for the Journal of the ETS (the very group that would vote to investigate Pinnock and Sanders a year later). There is no doubt Helseth’s work helped to fuel the flames of discord that led to the 2002 ETS witch hunt. The claim of the article is that Boyd’s Open theism describes and promotes an arbitrary and malevolent conception of God over and against all his own claims to the contrary. The article is titled, “ON DIVINE AMBIVALENCE: OPEN THEISM AND THE PROBLEM OF PARTICULAR EVILS”.7 As Dr. Olson so poignantly put it, Helseth’s article is filled with “misinformation, misrepresentation and down right demagoguery.” In this brief refutation, I will address many of the caricatures and fallacies contained in the article, though an exhaustive reckoning is far beyond the scope of this piece. I’m certain a book-length treatment would scarcely provide space. Instead, I must limit myself to exposing only a portion of the many Man of Straw arguments, logical fallacies, and dirty scholarship tricks this article includes. To start, I will detail many of the foundational errors this article makes.

2. Building a Boyd of Straw:

YourLogicalFallacyIs_NoTrueScotsmanIn order to construct a convincing Boyd of Straw, you have to gather up enough straw with which to stuff him. Helseth begins gathering straw by making several foundational presuppositions and performing several acts of semantical sleight of hand.

First, he presumes there is one Christian tradition, one “orthodoxy,” and it just so conveniently happens to be his. The first sentence reads, “Throughout the history of the Christian Church, orthodox theologians have claimed that God is an omniscient being who has exhaustive knowledge of the whole scope of cosmic history.” John Sanders describes this tactic aptly. He writes,

“Some have criticized openness from departing from ‘the’ tradition and a few even called it ‘heresy.’ A few responses are in order. First, ‘the’ tradition is not singular for there are multiple streams. Those who accuse us of rejecting ‘the’ tradition usually enshrine their own particular tradition as ‘the’ tradition.”8

Helseth isn’t forthcoming about the tradition of which he is a part. He doesn’t identify the perspective from which he is approaching Open theism. By this, it is clear he intends to give readers the impression he is somehow neutral. The reality is, Helseth is a Neo-Calvinist—a member of the very same group who felt their political power in the evangelical academy was being threatened by Open theism. His tradition is not “the” tradition; it is one of many. He does not represent classical Arminians like Roger Olson and he does not represent Relational theologians9 of any stripe. He is among a narrow stream of Christian theology that holds several presuppositions about the nature of God, time, free agency, Scripture, and experience. Transparency, it appears, is not a value of Helseth’s, or is not expedient in his attack upon Open theism.

YourLogicalFallacyIs_BlackWhiteSecond, the author uses semantical sleight of hand with phrasing and rhetorical questions. Several times in the opening few paragraphs, the author sets before readers false dichotomies. Every false dichotomy boils down to a fool’s choice that isn’t really necessary to make, nor being advocated by Open theists. For example, he writes:

“Must we conclude that we are less than genuinely free because God knows everything there is to know about what has been, is, and will be—including the future free decisions of his creatures? Or, must we rather acknowledge that God is less than exhaustively omniscient because we in fact are significantly free?”

The bizarre nature of the phrase the author here uses, “exhaustively omniscient,” betrays his attempt to fool uncritical readers whom he has already biased against Openness by suggesting it is heresy. By the author’s own definition, omniscience is, “know[ing] all true propositions about everything that has been, is, and will be, and [doing] so in a manner that extends to the minutiae of past, present, and future reality.” Open theists agree with this definition and affirm divine omniscience. To know All true propositions is by logical necessity “exhaustive”—unless the author is aware of a sense in which All can mean non-exhaustive. Here are Open theists affirming divine omniscience:

“Though open theists are often accused of denying God’s omniscience because they deny the classical view of foreknowledge, this criticism is unfounded. Open theists affirm God’s omniscience as emphatically as anybody does. The issue is not whether God’s knowledge is perfect. It is. The issue is about the nature of the future God’s perfectly knows.” – Greg Boyd 10

“Everyone agrees that God is omniscient and knows everything that any being could know. He knows everything that has existed, everything that now exists, and everything that could exist in the future.” – Clark Pinnock 11

“…the omniscient God knows all that can be known given the sort of world he chose to create. […] There are several views about the content of divine omniscience (for example, Molinism and Thomism) and though everyone agrees that if something is knowable then God knows it, they disagree about what is possible to know.” – John Sanders 12

“All Christians agree that God is omniscient and therefore knows all of reality perfectly. The debate over God’s foreknowledge is rather a debate over the content of reality that God perfectly knows. […] The view I shall defend agrees unequivocally with the classical view that God is omniscient.” – Greg Boyd 13

Following the author’s rhetorical false dichotomies designed to misinform readers about what Open theists actually believe, he quickly moves to misrepresenting Open theism as a novel idea. This is another common device Neo-Calvinists use to throw shade on Open theism. If they can convince people it is new, they may also be able to convince people the view has no merit. So Helseth claims Open theism has been concocted by “contemporary postconservative theologians.” While Pinnock, Sanders, and Boyd might be classified by some as post-conservative, Boyd (the subject of the article) has never self-identified as one. Neither is it true that Open theism begins with post-conservatives at all. After fourth century proponents, and proponents in the Middle Ages, the next group to advocate for the Open View were some sixteenth-century Remonstrants. After that, several eighteenth to twentieth-century Methodists like Adam Clarke, Billy Hibbard, and Lorenzo D. McCabe were proponents.14 I’m not the first to make such an observation, but it strikes me as more than a little ironic that the most vocal critics of “new” theological ideas in the U.S. evangelical academy are the “Reformed” Neo-Calvinists. Obviously they are no longer reforming, and have forgotten how novel their own movement is within Church history.

Third, Helseth presents Open theists as redefining terms. This is another common ploy to discredit a view with which Neo-Calvinists disagree. Their definition of terms is the accurate, orthodox one, while anyone with a different usage is heterodox. However, once again, the author has already defined omniscience and Open theists agree with his definition and affirm divine omniscience. Therefore, no redefinition has taken place. Instead, what has happened is that Open theists recognize the true propositions which God exhaustively knows to include not only what “will” or “will not” happen, but also what “might” or “might not” happen. God knows that it is true I “might” finish writing this piece, and God knows that it is true I “might not.” Neo-Calvinists like Helseth don’t acknowledge the reality of “might” and “might not” true propositions, and therefore, he accuses Open theists of redefining. But both Helseth and Boyd affirm that no matter how many true propositions there are, fewer or greater, God knows them all (or “exhaustively” if that the term Helseth prefers). Helseth’s claim that, “Open theists insist… [God’s] omniscience does not extend to the details of future reality in an exhaustive fashion” is false. Instead, Open theists “insist” that the “detail[s]” of the future include contingencies that might or might not obtain—and that God knows them as such—because God’s knowledge is co-extensive with reality. What does not exist in the future are the settled “will” and “will not” true propositions regarding the choices of free agents (both human and angelic) that are not logically or causally necessary. Those true propositions do not exist because they are logically contradictory. At this point, Helseth gets his first fact about what Open theists believe correct. “Like square circles or two-sided triangles, future free decisions cannot be known because they simply do not exist; they do not constitute a part of knowable reality.” This acknowledgement of an actual Open theist belief only serves to further expose the falseness of his prior claims. If he recognizes that Open theist don’t believe “future free decisions” exist as part of “knowable reality,” how then can it be true that their non-existence contributes to a lack of “exhaustive” omniscience? Obviously, it cannot. But Helseth carries on obliviously with either a logical error or an intentional deception.

For another case of Helseth’s sleight of hand semantics, he manipulates the phrase “exhaustive foreknowledge.” He claims Open theists deny such foreknowledge even though he has just established that Open theists believe settled future free decisions are logically contradictory and therefore non-existent. Open theists, in fact, do Not deny exhaustive foreknowledge; Open theists deny Exhaustive Definite Foreknowledge. The “Definite” part relates to settled, future, free choices. Since Open theists deny these are settled, they deny they are definite. They do not, however, deny that they are “exhaustive” or “foreknowledge.”

YourLogicalFallacyIs_GeneticFourth, Helseth quotes another critic of Open theism named Ronald Nash, who attributes incompatiblism15 to Aristotle in a classic guilt-by-association argument. No evidence that Aristotle is the father of incompatiblism is presented, even though it is not an indisputable fact. Oxford philosophy professor Terence H. Irwin writes,

“Some ascribe to Aristotle an ‘incompatibilist’ view of the relation between final causes and the underlying material and efficient causes. […] Probably, however, Aristotle takes a ‘compatibilist’ view. He seems to believe that even if every goal-directed process were wholly constituted by material processes, each of which can be explained in material-efficient terms, the final-causal explanation would still be the only adequate explanation of the process as a whole.”16

This is as good a time as any to address another smoke-and-mirrors technique Neo-Calvinists have been using to discredit Open theists for nearly 20 years—let’s call it “the pagan card.” Ever since the 1994 book that started it all, The Openness of God, Open theists have critiqued “classical theism.”17 In fact, Boyd, the subject of Helseth’s article, critiques classical theism quite often. He has traced the idea of changeless perfection back to Platonic philosophy and the influence of Middle Platonist philosophers like Plutarch and Plotinus on early Church theology.18 However, contrary to the Neo-Calvinist caricature, Boyd and other Open theists do Not reject classical theism due to the notion that all pagan philosophy is corrupt or simply because it is foreign to the New Testament. Open theists are not playing “the pagan card.” Here, for example, are John Sanders’ thoughts:

“…the early church fathers did not sell out to Hellenism… It was legitimate for them to work with the best Greek philosophical thinking of the day just as theologians today attempt to utilize the best learning in fields such as linguistics, psychology and philosophy. They desired to distinguish the Christian God from the gods of polytheism and though they found ideas in the philosophical discussions of deity useful for this end, they were also critical of the various philosophical conceptions of divinity.”19

Open theists do not advocate a purging of all philosophical elements foreign to the biblical tradition. Open theists simply advocate for critical analysis of those philosophies and comparison with the biblical data. The fact that Neo-Calvinists have lashed back at Open theists with guilt-by-association arguments involving Greek philosophers only further demonstrates their lack of understanding of the Open theist critique of classical theism, and the moral bankruptcy of the Neo-Calvinist response. Rather than critically assessing their own presuppositions, they would much rather simply accuse Open theists of having their own patron pagan philosophers looming in the background. This is the type of sad tricks people resort to when they feel they’re in danger of losing political power. It is not the sort of scholarship followers of Christ have any business engaging in.

YourLogicalFallacyIs_AdHomenemFifth, Helseth misrepresents the motives of Open theists like Boyd as if he himself has exhaustive definite knowledge of their hearts. He writes,

“New interpretations of the relationship between divine omniscience and human freedom are in order, they argue, not only because classical interpretations are lacking in exegetical sophistication, but also because traditional interpretations are no longer palatable to philosophically astute theologians living at the beginning of the twenty-first century.”

This is another attempt to convince readers Open theism is new and dangerous, but it is also a false portrayal of Open theist motivations—which Helseth cannot know other than what they themselves have written. There is of course no footnote citing where to find the motives Helseth ascribes to them, because no such source exists. Boyd, who the article specifically targets, clearly expresses how he came to hold the Open view in the very book Helseth cites most (God of the Possible). Boyd describes biblical study and theological inquiry as the beginning of his adoption of the Open view. He bases his acceptance of the view on its biblical, theological, devotional, and practical merits.20 He does not base his advocacy on whether it is “palatable.” Such a characterization is meant to imply that Neo-Calvinists like Helseth are stronger, have more stomach, for a God who predestines the Holocaust and Open theists are merely weak-minded or weak-willed. It’s a derisive remark that smacks of machismo. This is highly typical. Neo-Calvinists routinely portray themselves as tough guys who have a tough God. Only weak men or women would have a problem with theological determinism. This, of course, is ludicrous. Christian theologians have rejected determinism as far back as Church theological tradition goes. And of course Arminius rejected theological determinism and he certainly doesn’t fit the stereotype of a weak-minded postmodern who Neo-Calvinists like Helseth want readers to picture.

3. Sound Bites and the Problem of Evil:

The way discussion and debate takes place in U.S. American culture has devolved since the inventions of the Internet and the 24-hour cable news cycle. Whereas in the recent past there was at least some cultural reward for treating opponents with respect and giving their arguments a fair hearing, no such rewards remain. Since at least the 90s, theological debate in the U.S. evangelical academy has taken on far too much resemblance to shouting talk shows filled with partisan political pundits and the chatrooms and message boards which provide relative anonymity and outlet for vitriol. Worst of all, Christian scholars in this context have compromised their own integrity to prove their fellow Christians scholars wrong on theological matters which ultimately point to the God both parties worship. That is what took place in the remainder of this article written by Helseth. Tactics unbecoming of a Christian, let alone a Christian leader—one called to teach others—were practiced in a shameful yet unapologetic way.

YourLogicalFallacyIs_TexasSharpshooterFirst, Helseth sets out in section II to critique Greg Boyd’s theodicy—his theology of God’s relationship to evil—yet does not engage significantly with God at War, a book written years previously that specifically addresses the problem of evil within the larger framework of Boyd’s trinitarian warfare theodicy. Instead, Helseth focuses almost all his energy on responding to God of the Possible and a few scattered quotes from online discussion (I will address those shortly). This is either a blisteringly ignorant oversight or an intentionally dishonest tactic. God at War is far more geared toward the theologically academic, while God of the Possible is expressly written for laypersons. God at War deals extensively with the problem of evil, while God of the Possible devotes less than 10 pages!21 Furthermore, Letters from a Skeptic (Scripture Press, 1994), which Helseth cites, was likewise written for an audience who are not accustomed to debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It is a book which features letters Boyd wrote to his atheist father who was not a philosopher, nor a terribly educated man. The language Boyd uses isn’t technical nor meant primarily to be philosophically precise. The primary purpose was to provide intelligible and sound solutions to intellectual obstacles to his father surrendering his life to Jesus.

Critiquing Boyd’s theodicy on select pages from books for laypeople rather than an academically-geared book on the very subject you claim to address is a prime example of a deck-stacking argument or a “Texas sharpshooter fallacy.”

There is video on YouTube of Mark Driscoll using the Free Will Defense in a televised debate over the existence of Satan22, yet were I to exclusively use that footage to evaluate his overall theology, I would be forced to conclude he is an Arminian rather than one of the most vocal Neo-Calvinists in history. That is the type of misrepresentation Helseth commits in this article.

Second, further evidence that Helseth has not analyzed Boyd’s theodicy to any significant extent is abundantly clear from the fact that he makes no mention of the role Satan plays in Boyd’s theodicy. Satan is so central to Boyd’s answer to the problem of evil that One Month after this article was published, Boyd published a book entitled Satan and the Problem of Evil.23 That bears repeating: Helseth does not include Satan in Boyd’s theodicy while one month later Boyd publishes a book entitled Satan and the Problem of Evil. Yes, it was that kind of hack-job!

Completely contrary to Helseth’s characterization, Greg Boyd’s theodicy is not singularly rooted in his understanding of the nature of the future, or in Libertarian Free Will—though both are important beliefs for Boyd. Instead, Boyd’s theodicy is primarily rooted in his view that our world is caught in the cross-fire of an unseen, cosmic, spiritual battle between God and Satan, Light and darkness. If Helseth cared one iota about representing Boyd’s theodicy correctly, that would have been the first line in this article.

Here is Boyd in his own words,

“…it is quite peculiar that after Augustine, throughout the church’s history up to the present, very few thinkers conceived of Satan as being in any way relevant to, let alone central to, the solution to the problem of evil. It is remarkable that the one who in Scripture and in the earliest postapostolic fathers is depicted as the ultimate originator of evil and the one ultimately behind all the world’s horrors has been thoroughly ignored in discussions on the problem of evil. […]

By contrast, the New Testament and early postapostolic church always thought of the problem of evil in the context of spiritual warfare. The world is caught up in a cosmic battle and thus is saturated with horrifying suffering and diabolical evil. That is the final explanation for evil.”24

Third, Helseth engages in what I can only describe as sophomoric exploitation by quoting unpublished comments Boyd supposedly made in the comments of a “discussion thread” on his long retired website.25 There is no format for citing a comment submitted in a “discussion thread” nor any form of online message board, because such venues are not sources for academic journal articles like the one Helseth here writes. Helseth’s scholarship here is not only unprofessional, it is amazingly immature. He doesn’t even have the decency to write Boyd for an official statement of his view on the comments so that he could at least correct his spelling. I’m convinced that were the social media websites we now have in existence at the time of this article’s writing, Helseth would be writing about Boyd’s tweets and Facebook statuses. And if the ETS had any academic integrity, they would have rejected it for publishing.

4. Coercion, Causation, Parameters, and Prayer:

YourLogicalFallacyIs_StrawManThe crux of Helseth’s critique of Boyd’s theodicy is based entirely on a mischaracterization of his view. Based solely on a few instances where Boyd seems to contradict himself, Helseth ignores everything else Boyd has ever written and focuses exclusively on the few instances that serve his counter-argument. Specifically, Helselth claims Boyd’s theodicy makes room for divine coercive action when convenient thus rendering Open theism inconsistent and incoherent. He cites Boyd’s use of “freedom within parameters” as an analogy for how God can predict some future outcomes while facing multiple possibilities for others. The “parameters,” Helseth claims, are where Boyd compromises his position and affirms “unilateral” “coercion” by God. However, a critical reader will notice right away that Helseth is playing fast and loose with terms once again. For Boyd, “coerced” cannot mean that a choice is made by God rather than the free agent since the very essence of Incompatiblism is that free will and determinism are logically incompatible. For Boyd, “coerced” can only mean that all free agents have their relatively-autonomous freedom constrained by their causally-settled context. Human beings are empowered with contrary choice (Libertarian free will), but this does not mean human beings can make any decision at any time. Countless decisions are simply not available to anyone and many are not available to us due to the causally-linked past.

Jonah disobeys God. God wants him to go to Nineveh, but he runs the other direction. That is the power of contrary choice. Jonah did not march to Nineveh like a robot. Instead, God severely constrained Jonah’s freedom—placing him in the belly of a great fish. Regardless of whether you consider this narrative historically literal or metaphorical and/or mythical, the point remains the same: God constrained Jonah’s freedom. Now, were God’s actions “coercive”? That depends on your definition. If by “coercive,” you mean that God acted upon Jonah in order to influence his decision, then yes, God acted coercively. This is how Boyd might be comfortable saying God acts coercively. But Boyd is certainly not saying God removes a person’s free will (power of contrary choice). Jonah could have elected to stay in the belly of that fish and die. He did not have to repent; he chose to repent.

Or consider Paul’s testimony to the Athenians regarding divine parameters and human freedom:

“From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” – Acts 17.26-27 NIV

Human beings cannot freely choose where they are to be born, others make that choice for us. Parents, civil authorities, nature all influence where a child is to be born. Recall that Jesus was born in Bethlehem for these reasons. These Paul describes as parameters which constrain our freedom, and attributes them ultimately to divine providence. However, Paul does not see these as the removal of all volition. Quite the opposite! Instead, Paul sees them as providing space for discovery of God, though God is everywhere. Paul does not think the future outcome of this search is settled because he states that a person would “perhaps reach out for [God]”. Note that this “perhaps” is also in the ESV!

It is difficult to imagine how Boyd could explain the concept of freedom within parameters more clearly than this,

“The notion that some of the future is open while some of it is settled seems contradictory to some people. I suspect this is because they are used to thinking in all-or-nothing categories about the future—either the future is totally open or totally settled. Since thy are certain from the Word of God that it cannot be totally open, they conclude that it is totally settled. This all-or-nothing way of thinking about the future is misguided. Far from being contradictory, or even just unusual, the view that the future is partly open and partly settled is the view we all assume unconsciously every time we make a decision.

For example, I am at the present time deliberating about whether or not I should travel to San Diego next month. In deliberating about this matter, I assume that it is up to me to decide when, where, and how I will travel. How could I honestly deliberate about this decision if I didn’t believe this? But notice, I also assume that much of the future is already settled and not up to me to decide. To deliberate about whether I should travel to San Diego or not, I have to assume that (among other things) San Diego will exist next month, that the laws of physics will operate as they do today, and that I will be basically the same person then as I am now. I cannot deliberate about issues that are up to me do decide without presupposing the settledness of many other issues that are not up to me to decide.This example illustrates that we cannot consider choices without presupposing that the future is partly open and partly settled—the very position that the open view advocates. If we believe that all of the future was open, we could not decide between options. If we believed that none of the future was open, we could not decide between options. Hence, the fact that we obviously do decide between options suggests that at some level we all assume that the future is partly open and partly closed.”26

Helseth’s chief critique of Boyd’s theodicy is that it makes God arbitrary and cruel because he does not intervene more often or when Helseth thinks God should. Helseth arrives at this conclusion after carefully stuffing his Boyd of Straw with sound bites designed to misrepresent Boyd’s view. He routinely accuses Boyd of contending that God acts “unilaterally.” This is patently false. One of the essential aspects of the Open theism Boyd advocates is that God has created a world inhabited by relatively-autonomous creatures—human beings—with whom God desires covenant relationship. This relationship that God desires is one of cooperation, mutuality. Scripture constantly compares God’s covenant relationship with his people to marriage, to the relationship between a Father or Mother and children. No relationships of greater intimacy, giving-and-receiving love, exist in human experience.

If Helseth was interested in representing Boyd’s view with even a modicum of scholarly respect, he would have acknowledged Boyd’s extensive doctrine of prayer. In Boyd’s theodicy, and theology of providence in general, God has hinged significant aspects of the future’s outcome on the voluntary participation of free agents. God’s nature is relational and so is God’s action in the world. John Polkinghorne, a world-renowned quantum physicist and theologian, is also an Open theist. He explains this concept of divine cooperation with humanity in prayer succinctly and poignantly,

“[Prayer] is a very curious thing in a way, because what are we doing? Are we drawing God’s attention to something God hadn’t noticed, or giving God a clever idea about what to do about it? Obviously none of those things are true, so what are we doing when we pray? I think we’re doing two things. One is: we have a certain room for maneuver, limited, but a certain room for maneuver to bring about the future. And I believe that God also has a providential power to bring about the future. And when we pray we’re offering our room for maneuver to be taken by God and used in alignment with God’s providential purposes. And I believe that things happen when human and divine wills are lined up in that sort of way, that would not be possible when they’re at cross-purposes with each other.I like to sometimes use the scientific metaphor of laser light. Laser light is powerful because it’s what physicists call coherent. All the waves are in step, all the crests come together and add up, all the troughs come together to add down, to maximum affect. Light that’s incoherent, the waves are out of step, a trough and a crest coincide and cancel each other out. I think we’re seeking a laser light coherence with God in prayer.”27

Like Polkinghorne, Boyd too believes much of the future hangs on whether or not free agents act—perhaps especially in prayer. In precisely the kind of “particular evil” scenario depicted by Helseth, Boyd specifically contends that prayer has the power to change the potential outcomes of such circumstances. He writes,

“In the open view account of [a potential future robbery in a park] …God could have seen that it was becoming more and more likely that you were going to take a stroll in the park where this robber was likely to be hanging out. He knows the thoughts and intentions of all individuals perfectly and can play them out in his mind like an infinitely wise chess master anticipating every possible combination of moves his opponent could ever make. It would thus be no problem for him to see the likelihood, in not (at this point) the certainty, that this ordeal would happen unless he intervened.Now let us assume you are a person who frequently talks and listens to God. What is more, you have family and friends who pray for you on a consistent basis. For the God who has designed the world so that prayer makes a great difference in how things transpire (see chapter 3), this is no minor consideration. Prayer opens the door for God to sovereignly alter what otherwise would come to pass. And the happy result is that a robbery that might have occurred was prevented.”28

YourLogicalFallacyIs_EmotionNowhere in Helseth’s accounting of Boyd’s theodicy does he mention the shared responsibility of those free agents upon whom God has leveraged significant say-so through prayer. His extended remarks about the plausibility of God preventing the Holacaust, aside from being one giant appeal to emotion, completely ignore the role prayer may or may not have factored into God’s “intervention.”

Boyd believes that God has chosen to act in the world in coherence with the wills of God’s people. In Nazi Germany, the sad fact Helseth ignores is that the Church was incredibly complicit in the evil.

5. Complexity, Ambiguity, and Boyd’s Theodicy

Finally, the primary reason Helseth’s critique of Boyd’s theodicy is a caricature is because conspicuously absent is Boyd’s robust discourse on the complexity of the universe and the ambiguity inherent in being finite creatures. Even a cursory survey of God at War reveals that Boyd’s primary explanations for the presence of evil are not Libertarian free will and the partly open nature of the future, but rather 1) Satan; 2) our world being caught in the middle of an unseen, cosmic, spiritual war; and 3) the extreme complexity of the creation and our utter inability to understand it as finite creatures.

“To be sure, individuals throughout the biblical narrative occasionally express convictions that come close to the classical-philosophical formulation of the problem of evil. […]What is interesting about all this, however, is that Scripture itself never teaches that these questions are based on an accurate understanding of God! […]

Indeed, as mentioned earlier, in a number of places Scripture seems to directly refute this position. The book of Job, I later argue, is a prolonged assault on just this erroneous ‘moralistic accountant’ conception of God (see chapter four). This false dichotomous assumption, reflected throughout this poetic dialogue, that Job’s sufferings are either Job’s fault or God’s fault is refuted by both the prologue of this book, which ascribes the afflictions to Satan (Job 1—2), and the divine monologues in which Yahweh does not take responsibility for Job’s afflictions but rather refers Job to the vastness and complexity of the creation, a creation that includes forces of chaos (such as Leviathan [chap. 41] and Behemouth [40:15-24] which need to be tamed.)”29

Any serious scholarly critique of Boyd’s theodicy would necessarily engage his views on Satan, spiritual warfare, and the complexity of the universe. Helseth fails to significantly address any of them.

6. Conclusion:

Helseth’s article in the journal of the ETS was one of the earliest examples of what has now become a routine caricature of Open theism by Neo-Calvinists. His is like a prototype, only models 10 years later have not improved. Embedded in today’s attacks on Open theism are found all the same fallacies and scholarship tricks:

  • Straw Man fallacy
  • Texas Sharpshooter fallacy (aka deck-stacking)
  • Appeal to emotion
  • Genetic fallacy
  • Black and White fallacy (aka false dichotomy)
  • No True Scotsman fallacy

To date, now nearly 20 years since The Openness of God, no serious scholarly critique of Open theism has produced evidence of significant flaws. All attempts have fallen flat and only fear of “controversy” has kept Open theism from becoming a more mainstream evangelical position. Nevertheless, Open theism continues to gain proponents in the evangelical theological academy despite the Neo-Calvinists attempts to prevent its influence. The future is not entirely settled with regard to Open theism. We’ll just have to wait and see if it will remain a minority position.


  1. The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Intervarsity Press, 1994) was written by Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger.
  2. John Sanders includes extensive research into historic proponents of what he calls “dynamic omniscience” in his book The God Who Risks (Intervarsity Press, 2007, Second Edition), chapter 5: “Divine Relationality in the Christian Tradition.” Greg Boyd has also highlighted many early proponents on his blog, and will attempt to compile a comprehensive survey in his forthcoming book, The Myth of a Blueprint.
  3. “Neo-Calvinism” or “New Calvinism” is a recent movement of fundamentalist Christian authors and ministry practitioners in the US and other Westernized nations who equate the “five points of Calvinism,” abbreviated T. U. L. I. P., with “Reformed” theology, “orthodox” theology, and “the Gospel.” They are overwhelmingly white, male, and the vast majority reject the ordination of women, espousing “Complementarianism.”. John Piper, Al Mohler, and Mark Driscoll are noted representatives of this movement.
  4. In 2000, Greg Boyd’s Open theism came under scrutiny at the Annual Meeting of the Baptist General Conference while he was a faculty member at Bethel. Two resolutions were passed. The first was specifically against Open theism, and the second was specifically in favor of keeping Boyd as a professor. John Piper was very disappointed with this decision who wanted Boyd ousted for his Open theism. In 2002, Roger Nicole, a Calvinist Baptist scholar, presented the motion to investigate Pinnock and Sanders’ Open theism on the grounds that he claimed it prevents them from affirming the ETS’s most important criteria for membership: the affirmation of biblical inerrancy. John Piper supported the motion and it passed. Incidentally, one does not have to affirm that the Scriptures as we have them today are inerrant to gain acceptance into the ETS. As their official statement contends, one only has to affirm that they were inerrant “in the autographs.” Since no autographs have ever been found, affirming such a tenet requires little if any evidence or research, but is instead a cultural and political litmus test.
  5. See, “Evangelical Inquisitions“, “Why open theism doesn’t even matter (very much)“, and “Is Open Theism a Type of Arminianism?“, Against Calvinism (Zondervan, 2011).
  6. Roger Olson: “Open theism: a test case for evangelicals
  7. ON DIVINE AMBIVALENCE: OPEN THEISM AND THE PROBLEM OF PARTICULAR EVILS
  8. Sanders, The God Who Risks, p.141.
  9. “Relational Theology” is an umbrella term that covers a broad spectrum of theologies that are all related to one another by their common values of relationship, freedom, and love. Examples of Relational theologies include, but are not limited to: missional theologies, feminist and/or womanist theologies, Pentecostal and/or charismatic theologies, liberation and/or postcolonial theologies, Wesleyan theology, process theology, open theology, Arminian and/or holiness theologies, trinitarian theologies. For more, see Relational Theology: A Contemporary Introduction edited by Brint Montgomery, Thomas Jay Oord, and Karen Winslow.
  10. Greg Boyd, God of the Possible (Baker, 2000), p.15-16.
  11. Clark Pinnock, Most Moved Mover (Baker, 2001), p.99-100.
  12. Sanders, The God Who Risks, p.15.
  13. Greg Boyd, “The Open-Theism View,” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views (Intervarsity Press, 2001), p.14-15.
  14. Sanders, The God Who Risks, p.167-168.
  15. Incompatibilism is the philosophical position that determinism and free agency are incompatible.
  16. Terence H. Irwin, Aristotle: “Causes” (Rutledge, 1998).
  17. “Classical theism” is that stream of Christian theological tradition which attempts concord between aspects of classical philosophical theories, such as Platonism for example, and Christian theology or the biblical witness. The single most central issue in this concord is the static nature of God in Greek philosophical thought versus the dynamic nature of God in Hebraic thought and Scripture. Philo and Augustine are prime examples of this stream. John Sanders writes a historical-theological critique of classical theism in The Openness of God (chapter 2) and Greg Boyd also critiques classical theism in God of the Possible (p.22, 130-131). He writes, “In a forthcoming volume, I demonstrate historically that most of the responsibility for the canonization of the ‘timeless’ model of perfection in the Christian theological tradition rests on St. Augustine. He was in this respect strongly influenced not only by Platonism but by Stoicism and Manichaeism as well. See G. Boyd, The Myth of a Blueprint (Downers Grove, Ill., InterVarsity Press, forthcoming).” (p.172)
  18. See: “Random Updates“, “Hellenistic Philosophy and the Problem of Chalcedon“, “The Paradox of Plutarch and Early Christian Theology“, “Plutarch’s Insightful Warfare Worldview“, “Spiritual Warfare and the ‘Eternal Now’
  19. Sanders, The God Who Risks, p.140.
  20. Boyd, God of the Possible, p.7-8, 10-11.
  21. 98-103, 135-136, 153-156.
  22. See “Nightline Face Off: Does Satan Exist? Part 3/10”  (From the beginning to ~1:19).
  23. Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy (Intervarsity Press, 2001) October.
  24. Boyd, God at War (Intervarsity Press, 1997), p.56.
  25. Footnote 32, p.502.
  26. Boyd, God of the Possible, p.32-33.
  27. John Polkinghorne, “Prayer seeking understanding“.
  28. Boyd, God of the Possible, p.152-153.
  29. Boyd, God at War, p.51-52.